By Ben Swift
‘Augustine was the ablest and purest of all the doctors, but he could not himself bring back things to their original condition, and he often complains that the bishops, with their traditions and ordinances, troubled the church more than did the Jews with their laws.’ (Martin Luther)
Like many other Christians from reformed, protestant churches, I recently attended a celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, hosted by an evangelical group of Anglicans in Brisbane, Australia. While the night mainly focused on an insightful look at the life and influence of Martin Luther, it was during a concluding prayer session that my ears really pricked up. A gently spoken woman in humble desperation, placed before God her desire to see the Anglican Church as a united body, once again embracing the truth of Christ by acknowledging the Christian Scriptures as the inspired Word of God, the authoritative rock on which our life in Christ is to be built, the central place where our discernment is to be sourced through the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit.
How utterly bizarre and saddening that a Christian would ever need to ask for these things, as if they no longer carry weight in their cross section of the Body of Christ. But why?
Many have discovered that the deeper you travel in your theological journey, the more you come across the ‘isms’ that lead to schisms, but it’s how we deal with these that is of vital importance. After all, five-hundred years on from the Reformation, those of us in the West at least have the freedom to debate without the loser’s head being escorted to the chopping block. That’s not to presume there will be no fallout whatsoever though.
I have often thought of how great it would be to share in the life of the great theological minds of history, to reflect, read and write about all things Christ and discuss them, perhaps even respectfully debate them over a pint in the stalls of an Oxford pub. Just who would be invited to these great discussions on such important matters? Surely the likes of St. Paul, Luther, Calvin, Barth, and Lewis, but the list could certainly go on.
While this may be the pipe-dream of any apologist striving to deepen their knowledge of how to argue for their faith, thanks firstly to the printing press and now the Internet, we can all – minus the pint and physical presence – delve into the minds of the God fearing men whom God has spoken through as they helped expand the boundaries of Protestantism from the time of the Reformation.
But what might we discover as we digest the printed words of historical theological thought? Will these men of influence bring cohesion or ‘isms’ that lead to schisms within the Body of Christ?
What are some of these so called ‘isms’ that have seemingly caused schisms within the church? While there are too many to mention, perhaps some that have been of strong influence within Protestantism include Lutheranism, Calvinism, Romanism, Evangelicalism, Liberalism, Pentecostalism and Post-Modernism to name a few. Between these ‘isms’, while many core beliefs are shared, there also exists differing interpretations that have been influenced by key theological and philosophical figures throughout history.
Perhaps some of the more significant areas of contention revolve around such areas as the authority of Scripture, election, predestination and who Christ died for, the nature of sin and the correct view of the sacraments. There are some in the church who suggest that these matters are not central to the Gospel message and therefore we should not become too caught up in trying to grapple with them at the expense of unity. Others would argue that wrestling with these understandings – while conceding that some things will remain in the realm of mystery – is incredibly important as they act as a lens through which we read and interpret Scripture. Take for example the current issue being hotly debated in many western countries around whether or not to redefine marriage to include same sex couples. The way in which Christians view Scripture is pivotal to how they will interpret what writers such as the Apostle Paul are teaching us in relation to this issue. Are Paul’s letters inspired words of God or are we to reinterpret them according to the culture of our day? But then if we can reinterpret Scriptures to suit the desires of our culture, can we then not reinterpret Jesus’ exclusive claim to be the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the father but through him? (John 14:6)
Returning to the roots of the Protestant Reformation is important. It was through this reforming that the Church once again became more than the religious institution. All could now read or hear for themselves the good news that in Christ we have assurance that through faith we can become the children of God and no human can alter this truth. As Jesus said just before his dying breath, “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
Upon final reflection of the presenter’s words from the Reformation Celebration, the Reformation is by no means over, we who seek to follow Christ in all his truth are still in the midst of an ongoing process. We need to continue in our struggle for the upholding of truth, always taking the schisms that inevitably come through the ‘isms’ back to Christ, back to the Scriptures and back to a place where even the most theologically astute humble themselves like children before their Triune God.
For in the end we must all arrive at the conclusion of Karl Barth who when asked after a lifetime of theological research and contemplation, “What have you learned?” He answered, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”